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Shadow of Itself

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

Early in August, as we walked along the trail to the cave at Graham Cave State Park, I read to my husband from the park's brochure.

"American Indians used the cave as a shelter starting about 10,000 years ago. The cave's modern history began when Dr. Robert Graham took out a land patent on the site in 1847. His son used the cave to keep hogs."

As we reached the end of the trail, I looked up to see a different kind of hog, a groundhog.

Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks. It's easy to understand why people might call them groundhogs. The animals spend much of their time in underground burrows and, of course, they eat like proverbial hogs.

How they came to be called woodchucks is not as clear. One source says the name stems from a Choctaw Indian word, shukka, which means hog. Another says that woodchuck is an anglicized version of the Algonquin wejack. Still others say that groundhogs originally dwelled exclusively in the woods and that "chuck" is a word people used for piglets, hence woodchuck.

Groundhog or woodchuck, its scientific name is Marmota monax. The species is related to the marmots of the Rockies and to squirrels. In fact, a groundhog looks a lot like a squirrel, only heavier. Adults can weigh up to 14 pounds.

"An adult groundhog, especially in the fall, can be a large animal," said Bill Heatherly, wildlife programs supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "People should stay clear of them because they can put up a pretty good fight."

Nevertheless, groundhogs lose many fights, falling victim to large predators like bobcats, coyotes, dogs and humans. Avoidance is their best defense. At the first sign of trouble, they run to their burrows. If cut off, they can be inventive escapists, even to the point of climbing trees.

Groundhogs also can swim, but they don't make a habit of it.

Primarily vegetarians, groundhogs eat leaves, flowers and grasses. Their favorite foods include wild lettuce, red and white clover, grasses and sweet clover.

Groundhogs are opportunistic feeders, however, and will also eat grubs, grasshoppers, bugs, snails and small animals. They'll even eat roadkill on occasion. Sometimes they chew tree bark. Could this be the wood the woodchuck chucks?

Their appetite for vegetables and flowers makes groundhogs the enemy of home gardeners. They alienate other folks by digging into and damaging levees and dams.

"They're destructive, all right," agreed George Hempen, a landowner in Jasper County. "They dig holes in the barn, and they dug under the floor of my shed."

To remove problem woodchucks, Heatherly advises against using lethal traps, which can injure people and pets. Instead, he recommends using a cage trap. He used such a trap to remove groundhogs that were living beneath the deck of his house, baiting it with broccoli and cauliflower.

"There's a lot of food around for them, so you have to entice them with something extra special," he said.

The Conservation Department tells people that the only practical way to dispose of a trapped groundhog is to destroy it. Groundhogs are considered game animals. If you trap and destroy one out of season, you must contact your conservation agent within 24 hours.

The Department definitely discourages people from attempting to relocate groundhogs. Regulations do not allow you to transport wildlife species without permission and, as is the case with most animals, groundhogs are extremely stressed when captured and relocated to new surroundings. If the transported animals manage to survive, they likely will cause problems for someone else, or they might damage public land.

According to a 1955 study, groundhogs spend 80 to 90 percent of their time sleeping or resting, with only an hour or two a day above ground. Maybe that's why I had lived on my property several years before I saw a groundhog, despite plenty of evidence suggesting their presence.

One fall day, however, I spotted one waddling from a field to a wooded hillside. Actually, it saw me first and was running, but even when a groundhog runs, it waddles. The hillside was rocky and wooded, just the sort of edge habitat a groundhog favors.

I later investigated and found the burrow entrance, which was marked by a characteristic pile of soil and rocks. If I could have looked at a cutaway of the burrow, I would have probably seen several long tunnels. The groundhog excavates these with its long claws. When it accumulates a pile of debris, it uses its head to push the debris out of the main tunnel.

I almost stumbled into another hole that was well camouflaged by fallen leaves. Perhaps it was part of the same burrow. The lack of a telltale pile of soil in front of the hole suggested it was a secondary entrance. It dropped straight down about a foot before turning. Groundhog tunnels usually don't go deeper than four feet, but they sometimes extend 50 feet horizontally. I found several other entrances sheltered by rocks and trees.

When scientists excavate groundhog dens, they usually can identify a separate sleeping room, nursery and latrine. Groundhogs also use the pile of soil at the main entrance as a latrine. The animal digs a hole for its droppings and then covers them.

A groundhog usually moves from its home each spring, leaving the abandoned tunnels to other animals, such as rabbits, mice, opossums, and skunks. Their summer burrows are often in open areas near food sources.

A groundhog is a true hibernator, which means it sleeps very deeply. Before it nods off, a groundhog pulls soil down from the walls of its sleeping chamber and plugs the hole to keep out intruders. Then it curls into a ball with its forepaws over its eyes.

Researcher Roy A. Grizzell wrote that a hibernating groundhog he examined, "was cold to the touch, showed no signs of normal breathing, and no outward indication of heartbeat." He said he often handled groundhogs for up to 15 minutes without waking them.

Groundhogs typically hibernate alone. In the spring, a male groundhog goes from burrow to burrow, sniffing the soil in front of entrances to locate a solitary female. If one accepts him, he may live with her in the den until the young are born in 32 to 33 days. At that time, the female chases away the male.

The young stay in the nest until they are about four weeks old, when they begin following their mother outside. She runs regular safety drills, sounding an alarm whistle (in some places, groundhogs are called whistle-pigs) that sends the babies scurrying back to the burrow. A groundhog also chatters its teeth when alarmed or frightened. Young groundhogs are particularly vulnerable to predators, even birds of prey, so it's important for them to develop a flighty manner.

Missouri's groundhog hunting season opens the day after the close of spring turkey season and runs through Dec. 15. I prefer not to eat meat, but a lot of people must like groundhog. During a quick search of the Internet I discovered plenty of recipes. The meat can be roasted or, after marinating, cooked on a grill. Most recipes caution you to remove the animal's scent glands during cleaning.

Medical researchers find groundhogs make good surrogate models for studying viral hepatitis in humans. Some wild groundhogs host a virus that's similar to the hepatitis B pathogen.

Groundhogs have gained the most fame for their ability to predict the weather. Punxsutawney Phil in Punxsutawney, Pa., is the most famous of these weatherhogs. On Groundhog Day (Feb. 2), Phil is pulled out of an artificial den on Gobbler's Knob. If he sees his shadow, it means we're due for six more weeks of winter.

You don't have to go clear to Gobbler's Knob to find a groundhog worthy of casting a shadow. Missouri has plenty of its own and, according to The Wild Mammals of Missouri, they may begin to come out of their winter burrows early in February, depending upon the weather, of course.

How much can you depend on the weather prognostications of Phil or other groundhogs? Unfortunately, not much. Research shows groundhog predictions are right only about 40 percent of the time.

A new plan carries the Conservation Department into the future.

The Conservation Commission recently approved a strategic plan that will guide the Conservation Department into the future. On paper, the plan is a bulky thing, comprising more than 60 pages. However, it is amazingly flexible, allowing us to respond quickly to changing conservation issues and concerns.

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